Walking down the street the other day, I saw a kid with proper NHS glasses. It took me right back to my primary school days, when the kids who needed glasses had no other option. It got me wondering whether, as budgets nosedive, we'll now start to see more kids having to wear the most basic of spectacles. And then I got to thinking about how this might not be a problem:  1970s NHS-style frames have become cool - even Mr Timberlake wears them. This is, of course, tied to the rise of the nerds. But here's an interesting thing: the whole nerd subculture is something of a myth.

I'm getting this from my new favourite researcher, Hanke Korpershoek. In 2008, she published a study about whether the “nerd” stereotype of the male science student was justified. The paper, published in Pedagogische Studiën, 83, 141-156, is in Dutch:

Korpershoek, H., Kuyper, H., & van der Werf, M. P. C. (2008). Zijn bèta’s nerds? Verschillen in persoonlijkheid, sociale contacten en vrijetijdsbesteding tussen jongens met natuur & techniek en jongens met andere profielen

The translation: Are male science students nerds? Differences in personality, social contacts, and leisure activities.

When I asked her about this study (primarily based on questionnaire responses from 1812 boys in secondary education), Korpershoek kindly wrote me a summary, which is what I’m working from here (direct quotes are in italics).

This study dealt with the stereotyped image of male science students as “nerds”. We sought to discover whether science students in fact represent a certain type of the student population. Based on a literature review, we hypothesized that:

(1) science students have lower scores on the personality factor Extraversion than other students

(2) science students have less social contacts than other students

(3) science students spend more time using a computer and other media than other students

(4) science students spend less time on sports, relationships, and social contacts than other students.

So, which of those do you think is true?

(1) is true. Science students are less extrovert

(2) is also true, but only because the "science boys" (that’s what they called them in the study) had fewer female friends than non-science boys. The number of male friends was no different – and it’s worth noting that the lack of female friends was only PRE-UNIVERSITY. Once they were in higher education, the female friend quotient lifts back to “normal”.  Stick with it, nerd boys, it all comes good in the end …

(3) is not true. Science is not a route to social oblivion.

(4) is true: science boys indeed spent less time on sports, relationships, and social contacts than other boys. But the differences between the two groups were (very) small. 

Korpershoek’s take-home summary? “The results suggested that stereotyping male science students as nerds is largely unfounded.”

Looks like the nerd thing is a myth. So who created it? Was it the geeks trying to carve themselves an identity? It seems to have been extraordinarily successful as a social construct.

btw, Korpershoek is preparing a new paper (in English) with new data, so watch this space....

IN A BIG WEEK for awards, we’ve had the Nobel Prizes and, last night, the MOBOs. The singer Jessie J walked away with four MOBOs and has the attention of schoolchildren up and down the country. The Nobel laureates, I would venture, are not quite so appealing to the youth.
Ask a child to draw a scientist and you will almost without fail be handed a picture of an old or middle-aged man with facial hair and glasses. He will be wearing a lab coat. Astonishingly, adults asked to draw a scientist invariably follow the same pattern. Even more astonishingly, so do scientists (PDF).

Looking at the pictures of this year’s Nobel laureate scientists you can see why. These are the only scientists whose photographs penetrate the world’s media to any degree, and they are almost all old men – many with beards and glasses.

The thing is, their greatest work as scientists was usually done decades before these photographs were taken. Daniel Schectman was just 40 when he discovered quasicrystals (he is 70 now). Adam Riess, 41, was just 28 when he began his leadership on the project that discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe. Ralph Steinman, who died last week aged 68, was 30 when he made his prize-winning breakthrough.

If your idea or discovery is revolutionary enough to win a Nobel Prize, it will almost certainly takes decades before colleagues accept it. Schectman’s quasicrystals simply shouldn’t have existed, according to all the normal rules; he was told he had brought “disgrace” on his research group, and was asked to leave. Riess was told by a colleague “in your heart, you know that this is wrong” when he first presented evidence for the existence of dark energy. Ralph Steinman’s colleagues insisted for a decade that he was mistaken about the potential of dendritic cells.

Even when the idea has become established, further decades pass before the Nobel Academy feel secure enough about it to make the award. And by that time, your looks have faded.

While sports and pop stars get exposure in their teens and twenties, our best scientists – the people we’d really like our children to emulate – are invisible until they are too old to be perceived as role models. And, when it comes to inspirational role models, looks matter, however much we'd like them not to.
On Twitter today, Schectman said, “if you're a scientist and believe in your results, then fight for them.” Can I ask that you also put aside a nice photo of your young self to give to the Nobel Academy’s publicity department? Just in case.